Occupied Palestinian Territories

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:43 pm on 29th April 2004.

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Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Conservative, Grantham and Stamford 3:43 pm, 29th April 2004

Let me start with a disclaimer, because I was not on the Committee when it went to Palestine and to Israel. Since I did not take part in the evidence taking—I did not see or hear the evidence—although I joined the Committee a few days before the final session in which the draft was debated, I deliberately and explicitly excluded myself from making any substantive contribution to the report. It seems wrong, if one has not heard or seen the evidence, to be a party to reaching a verdict.

Never in my life have I been in the occupied territories and Palestine; I have only ever once been to Israel, and that was a very long time ago when I was in my early 20s. I think that Israel has changed quite a bit since the 1970s, when I was there. Unfortunately, the problems that then seemed intractable—refugees, the status of Jerusalem, the status of settlements and so on—remain with us. There has been absolutely no political progress at all. One could pick up a newspaper and imagine that one was back 30 years ago and that nothing had changed.

I want to start where the Committee ended—to start from the conclusion. The clear conclusion of the report and of anything else well informed that I have read on the issue is really quite simple: there will not be a cat in hell's chance of any development in Palestine until there is peace—until there is an end to the violence, to the restrictions that have been imposed on movement and other activity as a result of the violence, and to the total demoralisation of Palestinian society that has resulted from the tragic events of the past few years.

The two key questions that we should be considering in Parliament are, first, why has there been no progress—not since the Oslo 2 agreement, not since the road map, not since as far back as the 1970s, the 1960s or the 1950s, indeed no progress at all with this problem—and, secondly, what are we to do now?

The generally fashionable line to take on this debate, and the one that my hon. Friend Tony Baldry took, although I congratulate him on his lucid speech, is that the fault has been largely with the Israeli Government. I find that entirely unconvincing. I am not afraid to criticise the Israeli Government; I have never taken a partisan view in these matters. It is clearly the fault of the Israelis that the Palestinian refugee problem was created in the first place, and that Palestinian civilians were forced in 1948 to leave what has become Israel.

There is clear evidence that the appalling massacre of Deir Yassin was carried out deliberately with a view to intimidating the Palestinian population and driving them out. Those are serious charges and I am not afraid to make them. There have been some legitimate complaints on the part of the Arabs left in Israel since then. A very black day in the history of Israel—a country that is on the whole a fine democracy, and proud of that tradition—is represented by the treatment of Palestinians trying to get their land back who won cases in the 1950s in the Israeli courts. Those judgments were overruled retrospectively by Israeli legislation. That is an appalling record.

I am not afraid to criticise Israel when it needs criticising, but I do not think it sensible or rational—I do not think that it conforms to the facts—to criticise Israel for the current situation. Why do I say that? Because if there has been no progress since Oslo that is because of acts taken by the Palestinian leadership, or through their lack of leadership. I wonder which phrase is more appropriate.

A very hopeful moment occurred at the end of 2000, with the Camp David meeting. You will recall, Mr. Chidgey, that the then Israeli Prime Minister, Mr. Ehud Barak, arrived with an offer that was presented in many quarters as extremely generous. I shall not make any value judgment on it. It was certainly very significant. It amounted to handing over more than 90 per cent. of the territories and the Haram al-Sharif, and that was just for starters.

I do not say that I expected Arafat and the Palestinian delegation to say, "Yes, that's fine, Mr. Barak. Thank you very much. We shall sign on the dotted line," and that that would be the end of the story. However, one might have expected, if they had been remotely responsible or rational, that they would have started to talk about it, saying, "This is our response to the offer." Not at all. To the absolute consternation of President Clinton, who was presiding over the meeting, Arafat refused to negotiate at all.

An awful lot of criticism has already been made in the Chamber—no doubt more will be made before the end of the debate—about all the things that are going wrong in Palestine now, and the restrictions placed on Palestinians. Of course that is appalling. I am sure that the economic situation is as desperate as that described in the document before us, but none of that need have happened.

What is more, it seems extraordinary to say that that is the fault of the Israeli Government and Sharon, because it is clear that the person who created that Israeli Government is Mr. Arafat. When Arafat refused to deal with Barak—Barak having made that substantial offer at Camp David—there was only one conclusion to be drawn. It was the one that the Israeli electorate of course drew, when they had to go to the polls a few weeks later. They concluded that there was not a deal to be done on land for peace.